Much Ado About Nothing (United Kingdom/United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Much Ado about Nothing is Kenneth Branagh's adaptation of one of Shakespeare's better-known comedies. Centered around two romances - Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), and Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson) - the story follows these very different courtships. For Hero and Claudio, it's love at first sight and, as with any immediate attraction, they have a lot to learn about each other. Beatrice and Benedick, on the other hand, have known each other for quite some time and it takes a little none-too-subtle prodding from their friends to help them realize and admit their feelings.

With Henry V, Kenneth Branagh made a stunning motion picture directorial debut, setting the cinematic world on its collective ear with a rendering of the story that many consider the equal of, if not superior to, the legendary Laurence Olivier production. Now, two films (Dead Again and Peter's Friends) and four years later, Branagh has again taken Shakespeare to his pinnacle. Much Ado about Nothing is a much different sort of picture, but no less impressive.

For those who don't find Shakespeare's comedies funny, this is the film to see, because it's hilarious. It isn't just the lines that create laughter, but the manner in which they're set up and delivered. Expressions and actions often play a large part in the comedy, some of which is decidedly physical. These are the kinds of things that don't appear on the written page. The film also contains its share of drama, and the pathos and poignancy come as easily and naturally as humor.

The life and vitality of this production are amazing. Things move along with a breezy energy that makes it impossible not to get caught up in the experience. Cuts and edits to the unabridged play are partly responsible for the uptempo pace. However, while Branagh is not entirely faithful to the original text of Much Ado about Nothing, his film takes pains to capture the play's spirit. Only Shakespearean purists are likely to recongized what has been excised.

As might be expected, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson turn in sparkling performances. To date, neither has done better work. When they are together, the chemistry is apparent. Here, as in Dead Again and Peter's Friends, it's a high point. Branagh and Thompson are worthy contemporary rivals of any of the silver screen's great husband-and-wife couples.

Denzel Washington, not a name one might initially associate with Shakespeare, delivers Don Pedro's lines with a comfortable ease that might surprise those who associate him only with contemporary films. Keanu Reeves, as Don Pedro's bastard brother, Don John, isn't as bad as one might reasonably expect (given his lackluster track record), principally because he doesn't have many lines. Robert Sean Leonard's range is occasionally stretched, as well. Any time he's supposed to cry, the tears don't quite come.

Veterans Richard Briers and Brian Blessed, along with newcomer Kate Beckinsale, fill out the supporting roles with typical British flair. Michael Keaton is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser as the over-the-top Constable Dogberry. He's like something lifted from Monty Python, complete with The Holy Grail's galloping around on a non-existent horse. Somehow, I don't think Shakespeare envisioned the character like this.

Much Ado about Nothing is a gem of a movie - a real find in 1993's sea of mediocrity. Branagh has successfully used a mixed cast of "names" and "unknowns" to breathe life into this lavish production, and never has Shakespeare been more warmly received. I'm not sure if "feel good" has ever been used to describe a picture based on the Bard's work, but the expression fits. This film cements Branagh's status as a great director of Shakespeare, and perhaps of film in general, as well.

Much Ado About Nothing (United Kingdom/United States, 1993)

Ranked #2 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1993
Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 1993-05-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Nudity, Mature Themes)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1